This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign, through which cards are sold to support the fight against poverty. To learn more or to purchase the cards, click here.
How ironic it is that the famously wealthy Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the first one to raise the issue of "the poor" in the context of this year's presidential election contest. Awkwardly enough, he said that he wasn't "concerned about the very poor" because they had a safety net -- which he vowed to repair if there were defects. Or something to that effect.
But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just trying to underscore that his first priority was fixing the economy for the middle class. After all, as revealed by his recently released tax returns -- and to his credit -- the former Massachusetts governor is far more charitable than any of his opponents, with the significant exception of President Obama.
Unless I missed something, until the Romney episode last week there was little evidence among the candidates that anyone running for national office cared a whit about the plight of the nation's most impoverished citizens, including the millions of children who are homeless or hungry or attending broken down schools in lousy neighborhoods. Heartbreaking stories are appearing regularly in the national media about more and middle-class families joining the ranks of the homeless, experiencing food insecurity or unable to afford heating oil in New England. And at least 10 million to 20 million children aren't getting regular health care because they lack health insurance or live in severe doctor shortage communities.
Too many people -- including national leaders who should know better -- can't begin to understand what it means to be profoundly poor and the challenges faced by disadvantaged kids who share the same kinds of aspirations that other, more affluent children dream about. Yet the capacity to understand poverty and its consequences for children, families and the nation has little to do with a person's ideology or net worth. The Kennedys and the Shrivers are just two examples of highly affluent families whose empathy and ability to think long-term made them champions of antipoverty efforts.
Today the necessity to address the economic challenges of profound poverty among children could not be more compelling. It is no longer only a matter of compassion and charity. Even the most hardened, empathy-challenged national leader needs to understand that children who don't fulfill their potential, or who lack a feasible path to educational attainment and economic productivity may become serious liabilities with respect to U.S. prosperity -- and influence -- in the decades to come.
For a forthcoming book, I have been speaking with many young people, particularly middle school age, who live in shelters for homeless families in New York City. These kids want to be teachers, nutritionists, lawyers, police officers, and, sometimes (just like my own grandson) professional athletes. Even the budding pro players, though, have "back-up plans" that are indistinguishable from those of their counter-parts in the successful suburbs.
Many among our current crop of aspiring presidents might be shocked to realize how unflustered these kids are about the extraordinary challenges they face. Like all children, they dream their dreams and imagine futures that should be attainable in this nation. They deserve to have the rest of us make certain that access to health care, decent schools and safe neighborhoods are assured for every child in America.
Of course, none of this is meant to say that there isn't a key role for parents in helping their children through whatever adversities exist. Indeed, the presence of caring, protective, inspiring adults in the lives of poor children is essential. What is inexcusable, however, is any candidate for president of the United States who does not present a clear plan to address the growing problem of poverty among far too many of the nation's children.
Finally, lest there be any misunderstanding, what's important is not how charitable an elected official may be in personal values and "giving." What matters is whether or not they possess the wisdom and courage to invest in programs that cost money now, but promise to secure America's prosperity in the decades to come.
Follow Irwin Redlener, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IrwinRedlenerMD